Democracy failing as restriction to end war

Russian jet fighters formation carry out a flypast, part of a military parade on Victory Day...
Russian jet fighters formation carry out a flypast, part of a military parade on Victory Day earlier this month, marking the 76th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War 2. PHOTO: REUTERS
Is the spread of democracy the key to eliminating the scourge of war, asks Niamh O’Donnell.

As you begin to read this article, there are more than 26 conflicts raging in different parts of the world. For the past 3400 years of recorded history, humans have been at war for approximately 92% of the time. This year is clearly no exception, but we can hardly be surprised.

Some scholars and world leaders have long advocated that democracy is the best remedy for the scourge of war. But is the spread of democracy really the key to eliminating war?

My answer to this question is rather grim: the spread of democracy can never fully guarantee the elimination of war. But, before I lay out my pessimistic view, I will acknowledge the claim that democracy can create peace does have some merits.

Why is it that some scholars and world leaders argue that democracy contributes to world peace?

It is noticeable that as democracy has spread around the world, it has brought a wave of peace with it. Inter-state violence has decreased with fewer than 10% of armed conflicts since 1970 being inter-state wars fought for traditional objectives.

Advocates of the democratic peace argument posit that the correlation between the spread of democracy and fewer inter-state wars has a simple explanation: democracies do not go to war with other democracies; therefore, the more democracies, the fewer wars.

Democracies are characterised by norms of peaceful conflict resolution that take place through democratic processes. Such norms apply across national boundaries between democracies. Democratic institutions also restrain leaders, make them accountable to voters and play an informational function that prevents misunderstandings between democracies that could otherwise lead them to war.

But here is where the issue lies. We live in an international system of anarchy. What I mean by anarchy is that there is no authority higher than the state to control its actions and settle conflicts. When states exist in a system of anarchy, war is an inevitable phenomenon, no matter how many democracies exist within it.

Anarchy creates quite a dilemma for states: how can they trust each other not to act aggressively? This is a very justifiable concern for states that have no-one to protect them but themselves. We must expect states to find ways to maximise their power relative to other states to increase their security and to achieve their ultimate goal: survival. After all, the stronger a state, the less likely adversaries will attack it.

State responses to anarchy can create a security dilemma which often leads to war. For a moment, place yourself in the shoes of a state. You may decide to improve your security by increasing the size of your navy to protect yourself against potential adversaries, not for the intention of invading another states territory. To other states, this may signal the wrong message. For all they know, you could be preparing to shift the world balance of power in your favour, which threatens their security. Power competition ensues as other states respond with their own security maximisation. This can spark a disastrous cycle of power accumulation, leading to war in some instances.

What does all this mean for the original question: is the spread of democracy the key to eliminating war? It means that we must not rely on democracy to foster peace when regime type cannot exclude states from being potential adversaries to one another. We must assume that all states are rational actors with offensive military capabilities; democracies included. We can’t always rely on democracies to restrain themselves from going to war with each other when their survival is jeopardised.

In fact, we have already witnessed conflict between democracies. There are several historical examples of them bargaining hard, issuing threats and using military force towards one another in instances when their security was under threat.

In the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, Britain supported the autocratic Arabs in their invasion of democratic Israel. Britain aided the Arabs’ invasion of Israel because the retention of its position in Palestine was strategically crucial. Without its influence in the Middle East, Britain could have lost a focal point of communication, a source of oil and a buffer zone that protected the British in Egypt, all of which were key material sources of power.

Security concerns during the Cold War also motivated the US to intervene and destabilise fellow democracies including Iran, British Guyana, Brazil, Indonesia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Chile. The targeted states all had left-leaning democratically elected governments which Washington perceived as threatening to its containment of communism.

The US clearly prioritised its security concerns over negotiating with its fellow democracies in good faith.

So can the spread of democracy eliminate war? I cannot deny that the spread of democracy will contribute to a reduction of inter-state wars to some extent; history so far has made that clear already. But we must be careful not to consider democracy an absolute guarantor of peace. Security goals will always be a priority for states; regime type will never be able to change that. Yes, democracy’s spread can contribute to peace to some extent, but we must not be surprised when democratic peace doesn’t last between states. It has happened in history, and it can certainly happen again.

 - Niamh O’Donnell is a master’s student in international studies at the University of Otago.

 

Comments

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Democratically elected governments have been overturned in Spain, Chile, the Congo, Fiji and Egypt.

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.

Flags represent nationalism.
I refer to subversion of democratic elections by outside forces.

Righteousness brings peace. Wickedness brings war.

When countries abandon respect of God, they end up being ruled by the rich. Democracy is only an illusion. The wealthy pull the strings. People power is subverted and ignored, hence that most people are disillusioned with politics. Politicians represent their donors, not the people. One version of the unaccountable wealthy are the tech giants, with no fixed address. Our pols submit to their will. They are supported by scientism. A perverted version of science. The apparent anarchy is pushed by wealthy companies and their banking backers whom wish to profit off the sale of arms, and profit off chaos. Arms dealers and bankers have a win-win with war. As it has been for over 100 years. The little bit of truth that gets out in corners of the internet has been a major problem for this scam, hence the full-court press to shut it down. Hate-speech is used as an excuse, by the wealthy, to shut down the light of free-thinking people.

Thought-provoking and well said. ✓

I suggest Ms O'Donnell continue her studies, she clearly has much to learn.
I would like to know which scholars and world leaders have long argued that democracy is the remedy for the scourge of war. I'm certainly not aware of any.
In my opinion war is a human instinct. We are territorial, we are protective of our nearest and dearest, we are naturally aggressive we are acquisitive. All of this leads us to conflict. Sure civilization can blunt these instincts and cast a very thin veneer of peacefulness and reason but that is all it is a veneer. It does not take much to let loose the beast within us. I doubt any ethical, moral or ideal will ever overcome this basic instinct.
Back in medieval times, in Europe, when we were just rediscovering the concept of Democracy, it was Christianity that was going to be the glue that bound us, the European nations of the time, together in peaceful brotherhood, but that failed miserably and produced some of the greatest periods of war and conflict our history has ever seen.
Democracy has proved no better in this purpose.

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